February 5, 2017

COMMENTARY: Shadowy Reflections – Three Striking Similarities Between Othello and Iago

Even devoted fans of William Shakespeare’s Othello the Moor of Venice have acknowledged their difficulty in fully believing Iago’s sudden control over Othello. They have asked, to postulate in the proper pentameter, “How could this man deceive the great Othello?” The answer is clearly understood when we compare the two men, exploring three striking similarities between their characters: how they speak, how they act, and how they view themselves. Upon such an examination, the wicked Iago is revealed as a shadowy reflection of the tragic Moor – a reflection the Moor too readily embraces.

Othello and Iago are cunningly articulate and both take advantage of their way with words to get what they want. To win Desdemona’s heart, Othello relates the story of his life. He succeeds: “She thanked me;/ And bade me, if I had a friend that love her,/ I should but teach him how to tell my story,/ And that would woo her.” Iago’s way with words is less poetic and far more devious, but just as effective – as demonstrated when he plants the seeds of jealously toward Cassio in Othello’s mind:

Iago: Ha! I like not that.
Othello: What doust thou say?
Iago: Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what.
Othello: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
Iago: Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming.”

With few words and much suggestion, Iago has succeeded, as well.

In their actions, the Moor and his ensign share a common resoluteness. Othello’s reputation as a great and tireless warrior is noted early in the play when he is summoned to save Cyprus. The Duke makes it clear that Othello would be their greatest leader in battle. He notes there is “a substitute of the most allowed sufficiency,” but he insists on Othello’s command. Othello, of course, is triumphant. Iago is equally victorious and just as resolute, and even ruthless, on the battleground of his own schemes. Observe how he lures Roderigo into trying to kill Cassio, caring not which of the two ends up dead. “Now whether he kill Cassio,/ Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other,/ Every way makes my gain.” Clearly, Othello and Iago are men who get what they want, through words or by deeds.

In addition to these traits, the two share a jealous nature, a disposition shaped by the fact that both men view themselves as victims. Practically from the very moment Othello takes the stage, he stands accused. Brabantio alleges that Othello has stolen and corrupted Desdemona with “spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.” The charge is false; but the victimization of Othello is real. For his part, Iago feels victimized by Cassio: “He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,/ And I – God bless the mark! – his Moorship’s ancient.” Iago also feels victimized by his wife, as Emilia reveals when she speaks of her husband’s ungrounded jealously: “Some such squire he was/ That turned your wit the seamy side without/ And made you to suspect me with the Moor.” The difference, of course, is that Iago is never really victimized, though he believes this is true.

This is a difference the Moor does not see. To Othello, Iago is a kindred spirit, a familiar reflection that is easily and safely embraced, a friend who speaks, acts, and feels as Othello himself. To us, the differences within the similarities are apparent. Othello uses his words to win love while Iago’s words seek darker rewards. Othello’s resolute spirit defends Cyprus while Iago relentlessly pursues personal gains. Othello, even when he changes from being the accused to being the accuser, remains a victim. Iago portrays himself as a victim, but, in the end, his motivation is disclosed as little more than petty greed.

Until the end, however, Othello is blind to that greed. Simply, and tragically, this is why he so swiftly succumbs to Iago’s villainy: when Othello looks at Iago, he sees himself; when Othello listens to Iago, he hears himself; when Othello trusts Iago, he trusts himself. Near the play’s conclusion, Othello finally gains this insight, and he stabs Iago, perhaps to wound himself. He recognizes Iago as a reflection – a shadowy, twisted reflection of the man he, Othello, was – and a shocking, troubling reflection of the man he, Othello, has become.

“O fool ! fool ! fool !” Othello vainly cries, for he now knows the sorry truth: ‘Twas poor Othello who fooled himself.

Play cited: William Shakespeare’s Othello the Moor of Venice, edited by Gerald Eades Bentley.

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